Because neither candidate eclipsed 50 percent, the pair will meet in a runoff on December 13.
Watson was the favorite to finish first due to his name-ID after his 20 years in elected office in Austin and his fundraising advantage. But Israel overcame that to post a 15,000-vote, 5-point margin over Watson.
Watson won Williamson and Hays counties, but Israel pulled in 40 percent of the Travis County vote, which accounts for the vast majority of the city.
Jennifer Virden, who narrowly lost her 2020 bid for a city council seat, finished third with 18 percent of the vote.
“The good ol’ boys weren’t happy with us last night! The people spoke loud and clear — Austin, Texas is NOT for sale,” Israel said on Twitter.
“This race has always been about who can afford to live here, and who gets to decide. We have the momentum, we have the energy, we have the message that resonated with the people of Austin. I will be a mayor for ALL of Austin, with your help one more time.”
Watson’s reaction differed.
“With five opponents in this race [and] all of the chatter in those races that were above us on the ballot, we always anticipated a runoff. Being in a runoff gives us the opportunity to continue reaching out to more people [and] hearing from more people,” he wrote on Twitter.
“Austin isn’t becoming a big city, we are a big city. We have big city problems, but that means we have big city opportunities.”
According to the Austin-American Statesman’s Ryan Autullo, Israel spent $3 per vote while Watson spent $11.
The top issues in this race have consisted of housing affordability and coping with rapid population growth, mass transit, homelessness, and public safety.
Travis County, which encompasses almost all of the City of Austin, is a D-71% county according to The Texan’s Texas Partisan Index, so of the top three candidates, it tracks that the two most progressive contenders placed first and second. While municipal races are nominally non-partisan, very few elected officials have a Republican track record — in fact, only Councilwoman Mackenzie Kelly is a Republican in city office.
However, the runoff really is up for grabs, as the electorate is substantially different — fewer casual voters make it to the polls in runoff elections. There was no runoff in 2018 as Mayor Steve Adler eclipsed 60 percent of the vote, but in 2014, when Adler and Mike Martinez went to a runoff, 100,000 fewer voters cast ballots compared to the November general.
That’s a smaller, typically more invested electorate, which has an entirely different dynamic. Which way that breaks is unclear, but Adler finished about 7 points above Martinez in the general before winning overwhelmingly in the runoff that year.
The pair of candidates are in for a second round to settle who gets to succeed Adler and his self-described “disruptive” tenure as mayor. Both Israel and Watson have avoided overtly tying themselves to Adler; the mayor avoided endorsing in the general, but has indicated he might endorse in the runoff.
And that chunk of Virden voters, if they return for the runoff, could affect the outcome.
Down-ballot, Austin voters approved another large bond, this one a $350 million housing subsidy bond. It passed with around 70 percent support and had little political opposition, as Save Austin Now PAC — the group formed in 2019 in opposition to the city’s lax homeless camping and lying policy which succeeded in reinstating the ban by referendum — decided to focus on council races.
And in those races, Save Austin Now had a poor evening. Each of its four candidates — Clinton Rarey in District 1, Esala Wueschner in District 3, Richard Smith in District 8, and Greg Smith in District 9 — lost by substantial margins.
The closest was Richard Smith, who pulled in just shy of 30 percent in his challenge to incumbent Councilwoman Paige Ellis.
Additionally, while the group didn’t endorse in the mayoral race, they did plant their opposition to Israel who finished first.
If Israel finishes off the race in the runoff, it’ll likely impede Save Austin Now’s ability to push its “25 Ideas to Make Austin a World Class City” policy agenda released last month. With only one ally in City Hall, and a potential one in Watson — which is of no guarantee even if he does win, but is the reason they didn’t object to Watson like Israel — it’ll be difficult to get around the current political realities.
Politically, the group’s sights will turn to the May 2023 ballot proposition that would expand the powers of the controversial Office of Police Oversight, which is currently amidst a national search for a new director.
Only five of the council races were on the ballot this year despite redistricting, as a lawsuit trying to force each up for a vote was rejected by the Texas Supreme Court.
Incumbents Ellis and Natasha Harper-Madison won their races without being pushed to a runoff, but the other three districts will all move to the December winner-take-all contest. In District 3, José Velásquez will face Daniela Silva, Stephanie Bazan and Ryan Alter face off in District 5, and Zohaib Quadri faces Linda Guerrero in District 9.
When these all reach resolution, the Austin City Council will feature a number of different officials compared with its current makeup.
Disclosure: Unlike almost every other media outlet, The Texan is not beholden to any special interests, does not apply for any type of state or federal funding, and relies exclusively on its readers for financial support. If you’d like to become one of the people we’re financially accountable to, click here to subscribe.
Brad Johnson is a senior reporter for The Texan and an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.